Technology played a major role in fuelling the revolutions that swept through the Middle East from 2011, exemplified most obviously in the massive use of Twitter and other social media forums. Now, many NGOs and independent initiatives are employing new technologies in their fight against gender discrimination. In Egypt alone, initiatives and NGOs such as HarassMap, Shoft Taharush, Bassma, Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) have used technological activism and different forms of social media to draw attention to sexual harassment and fight against it.
HarassMap, for example, is the first initiative to employ online crowdsourcing to a social problem in Egypt. Launched in 2010, HarassMap aims to tackle sexual harassment in Egyptian society by utilizing both geographic information system (GIS) and SMS technologies. Incidents of sexual harassment can be reported through Facebook and Twitter, through the HarassMap website, or simply by sending an SMS. The Map (that pinpoints all incidents) represents a new and innovative step towards documenting cases of sexual harassment in Egypt, a country where—according to UN Women—99% of women have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment in public spaces. The Map also serves as an alternative safe space, through which women who have been harassed or witnesses to harassment can anonymously talk about their experiences. The Map can also be used as an awareness-raising tool, and in education efforts aimed at changing behaviours and attitudes that promote harassment.
Flickr/Ed Yourdon (Some rights reserved)
A group of women walk the streets near Cairo's bazaar. According to UN estimates, 99% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in Egypt's public spaces.
In an effort to understand the full impact of this tool, HarassMap published a research study in 2014, looking at the efficacy of employing crowdsourcing as a data collection method on sensitive topics, such as sexual harassment. It addresses whether crowdsourcing can reveal something more about the issue of sexual harassment that would not be known through traditional methods of data collection. For example, do crowd-sourced reports provide thorough descriptions of sexual assault, so that the deep impacts on the victims can be better understood? Do they generate enough information to provide a clearer picture of the scale of the problem? Do the reports provide an adequate evidence-base of public gender-based violence that can be used to inform community outreach campaigns, public policy and research agendas?
Clearly there are limits to analysing crowd-sourced data in a rigorous way. Random sampling and gathering a representative sample is simply not possible, as respondents are voluntarily entering information into the Map. However, this type of anonymous online system could give us information that traditional social science cannot obtain. Underpinning this project is a theoretical framework that holds online forums to be relatively safe spaces where people will, for various reasons, feel freer to talk about taboo or difficult subjects. In order to assess how effective crowdsourcing is in allowing people to speak up about sexual harassment, researchers analysed and compared stories of sexual harassment that were freely submitted to HarassMap with stories of sexual harassment that were elicited from members of the public through structured in-depth interviews.
A number of similarities were found: for example, the act of harassment in most of the analysed narratives is described very succinctly and with little real detail and minimal use of adjectives to describe the sexual harassment act. Describing the actual incident of sexual harassment was mainly done through the use of less sexual terminologies and euphemism. The Map reports did tend to have more sexual and explicative terminologies present than the interviews, indicating that subjects felt freer to provide details online that they would not provide in person.
Additionally, in the in-depth interviews, there was a greater tendency for people to play down and minimize their experiences or sexual harassment. Moreover, male interviewees did not report experiencing sexual harassment themselves and, instead, were always witnesses to sexual harassment. This differed somewhat from the Map reports where a small portion of narratives were from men claiming to have been sexually harassed, mostly by female harassers.
One particular advantage of the Map in reporting incidents of sexual harassment is its ability to provide a platform in situations where the public space has narrowed, or is no longer safe. One particular advantage of the Map in reporting incidents of sexual harassment is its ability to provide a platform in situations where the public space has narrowed, or is no longer safe. The Map allows users to report incidents without the fear of stigmatization or reprisals that victims of harassment often have. During the revolution in Egypt, for example, and after instances of state violence, which are clearly visible in reports from the Map, technology provided a space for the voiceless. Even the structure and descriptive nature of these reports reflected a marked difference in both style and content from that of other reports of sexual harassment. The verification problem, of course, cannot be entirely overlooked—although some filtering criteria are used, it is difficult to ensure that all the reports are completely authentic. But the incidents reported on the Map do follow general patterns that emerge in empirical research (for example, as to times of the day when harassment is most frequent, or the most common types of harassment).
The question now is how do we mainstream this technology with regards to gender-based violence and utilize the information effectively? A first step would be providing support and training for women on how to access and use the technology, with security and risk-management procedures in place to protect their confidentiality and anonymity. Access is a primary drawback, common in any technology-based program in the global South. In the case of Egypt, a report by the Women and the Web in 2013, found that one in five Egyptian women believe the Internet is not “appropriate” for them to use. Men seemed more open to using the technological alternatives, as reflected in the 2013 HarassMap study, due to the issue of anonymity. But many women seemed to not completely trust the extent of confidentiality that such technology provides, indicating that more awareness and education is critical. Second, technology developers must work alongside local gender-based violence experts to ensure that the tools and programs being developed are effective for their intended audience, so as not to exacerbate their current situations or cause them any harm.
Clearly, mainstreaming technology in addressing gender-based violence still has a long way to go. However, initiatives such as HarassMap and many others worldwide have given us new case studies to examine what works and what doesn’t, opening alternative channels for people to speak up and paving a new way forward.